Sadao Watanabe

Remembrance

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It's always an amazing thing when a popular musician is given the opportunity to follow his or her musical muse freely and, if so moved, can so effortlessly switch off between two forms of music whose fans tend to polarize. The famed Japanese saxman has had his handful of smooth jazz successes over the years (including a classic duet with Patti Austin) in the genre's early days called "Any Other Fool"), but here returns to his bop-influenced roots. With his place in jazz history secure and not having to prove too much chops wise, Watanabe often seems content here to blend in with his amazing band, dueting on lead melodies and giving ample solo time to each of his troop members. Who can blame him, though, with cats like flugelhornist Nicholas Payton (who matches the saxman's alto note for note on the swinging, percussive melody of the opening tune "Smokin' Section"), pianist Cyrus Chestnut, bassist Christian McBride, and drummer Billy Drummond? At a time in his life when he could just lay back and play some standards, Watanabe marks his return with all original material (a feat in itself) that's also very eclectic. In the 1990s, it's rare to hear trombone in settings other than a horn section, but Watanabe gives Robin Eubanks' trombone equal billing on the gentle blues ballad "Where You At." Eubanks also plays a key role on the densely percussive "Forest Song," an almost avante-garde type piece that finds the trombone and sax in a race to determine which can be more wacky. Watanabe enjoys mood-swinging immensely, following that type of tune with the dreamy waltz-flavored title cut and then ending the set with a snazzy jam session like "Aquarian Groove."

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